These Cards Do WORK! - Zedruu the Greathearted

(Zedruu the Greathearted | Art by Mark Zug)

Beware of Geeks Bearing Gifts

Hi there! I’m Jeremy Rowe, AKA J Ro, the Unsummoned Skull, a former Judge, Tournament Organizer, and Pro Tour competitor. I'm also a current teacher, college professor, streamer, community leader, and content creator. In this series, we examine the big EDH questions: What makes a card good? What’s the difference between popularity and synergy? What even is that synergy thing anyways? My intention is to differentiate between high- and low-synergy cards, describe in what ways the cards work with the commander, and explain why high synergy is such a good thing. For a deck to be powerful and consistent, each card needs to do a job, and these cards do WORK!

For our fifth article, we're taking a look at an intriguing commander, especially for the holiday season, the Santa Claus of commanders: Zedruu the Greathearted!

Zedruu the Greathearted draws cards and gains life based on the number of permanents you own that your opponents control. She also has the ability to donate those cards to other players. This begs the question, why would you want to help your opponents?

Some players use the lifegain and card draw to find combos and stay alive long enough to cast them. Others play universal effects, such that it doesn’t matter who owns them. Sinister players might donate cards that have massive disadvantages (so, basically white elephant gifts. Or I guess, Loxodon gifts). Once, I even made a Zedruu list full of expensive cards, like Jace, the Mind Sculptor, so I could lend them to other players who wouldn't normally get to play with those kinds of cards! Card advantage, political flexibility, and a wide range of applications are great, but how do you build a balanced shell, capable of doing something besides biding time?

It's my belief that all Commander decks are midrange decks, each needing to perform the same jobs to switch cleanly between offense and defense, as well as to combat a variety of threats from around the table. Zedruu the Greathearted is a special commander, so let’s find the right tools for these jobs!


Ramp

Most decks need ramp to play high-impact spells at a time when they are still relevant. This is especially true when trying to play a three-color, four-mana creature with defensive stats, and trying to do it before faster decks are able to overwhelm the board and end the game. Regardless of the build, if we're playing a deck with permanents we want to give to other players, we need to have our commander on the field, and we may need to recast our commander multiple times. Therefore, we need ramp that both fixes our mana and increases our mana potential, resulting in more permanents on the board to donate to our opponents.

For each job, I'd like to highlight a low-synergy-score card, a high-synergy-score card, and an underrated card for this commander in order to add more context to the qualitative data and see how each one magnifies the abilities, accentuates the strengths, and mitigates the weaknesses of our commander.

Smothering Tithe is one of the best white cards in Commander. It generates Treasure tokens when opponents draw cards, providing a deluge of mana that refreshes each turn cycle unless players pay their taxes. On Zedruu the Greathearted's EDHREC page, you'll see that Smothering Tithe has a low synergy score (0%), but that doesn't mean it's a bad card here. Synergy scores on EDHREC are a form of uniqueness calculation (44% of Zedruu the Greathearted decks play Smothering Tithe, and 44% of all other Jeskai decks also play Smothering Tithe, so the difference = 0%). 

Thought Vessel, by contrast, has a synergy score of 30% on EDHREC, which signals to us that it's a little bit more unique to our antlered friend than to other Jeskai commanders. It provides the static ability of invalidating the hand size limit, and since Zedruu is looking to draw lots of cards, it's perfect to help us hold onto all of them!

Knight of the White Orchid is my underrated pick. A Grizzly Bears with first strike is a solid defensive creature, but the key is the enter-the-battlefield ability to search for a card with the Plains supertype (not limited to a basic Plains). Since the ability triggers once and leaves the creature behind, we can donate the body to a player that needs one, enabling us to gain more value from our mana fetcher!


Spot Removal

In addition to being able to cast spells on time (or early enough in the game to still be relevant), decks need removal to be able to deal with the threats opposing decks present, as well as to be able to protect their own threats from opposing removal. In Zedruu’s case, spot removal needs to be cheap and flexible, as well as to leave behind a permanent to donate.

Dovin’s Veto is excellent at answering a variety of different spells and winning counter wars. When you need to counter a spell, this response is very difficult to answer. It's got a -12% synergy score on Zedruu’s EDHREC page, because other Jeskai decks play it at a much higher rate, but it's still great here.

Darksteel Mutation, meanwhile, has a synergy score of 27% for our generous host, indicating that it's used more with her than with other Jeskai commanders. Mutation can invalidate creatures, create an indestructible blocker, or just be another enchantment on the board. Since it's a permanent, possession of the card can be given to another player, but there are no additional benefits to the controller, so it is only a benefit for Zedruu!

Cast Out is an underrated option, played in only 16% of Zedruu decks. It’s very similar to Stasis Snare, which shows up a little more often for Zedruu decks. Each of them is a 1-for-1 removal spell attached to an enchantment that can be donated with Zedruu for minimal benefit to opponents, but an extra card and life a turn for us. Both enchantments have Flash, which enables them to be deployed at instant speed, and on anyone’s turn, which works well with Zedruu’s ability to use spare mana to donate possession of the enchantment, also at instant speed, so we get the benefit on our next turn!


Mass Removal

Most decks need plans for what to do if things get out of hand, and Zedruu the Greathearted is no different. This deck doesn’t have to contribute many creatures to the board, so it can run creature-based board wipes with impunity. Because it does tend to play a lot of enchantments, Zedruu’s enchantment- or permanent-based board wipes need to be one-sided, and, preferably, leave a permanent behind.

Ah, Cyclonic Rift. Few cards put more fear into the hearts of Commander players or have such immediate, devastating impact. In a game where players have built up impressive boards, an overloaded Rift is usually enough to say goodnight. It’s powerful. It’s iconic. It’s… not nearly as backbreaking in a deck that can’t take immediate advantage of the cleared board. Who owns which permanents actually becomes quite important here, since this card will bounce permanents we donated to others, undoing our hard work! I wonder if, instead of this classic card, we could 'remove' scary enemy boards by instead taking control of their creatures with, say, Reins of Power or other Insurrection effects. Why remove a developed board when we could take it and use it to smack our opponents?

Sphere of Safety, meanwhile, has a synergy score of 28% for Zedruu, as it's an excellent way to invalidate a large board of creatures, while scaling well with the high enchantment total that Zedruu decks tend to play. Control over enchantments typically doesn’t matter all that much, but if we donate too many away, the attack tax will be low enough for opponents to pay, so there's definitely synergy here, but we have to be careful about this one.

Time Wipe is a deceptively powerful card, and my underrated board wipe pick for Zedruu. It looks like a five-mana Wrath of God variant with an additional blue pip, making it harder to cast, but it allows us to bounce a creature, such as our commander! While everyone else is building their boards back and paying commander tax, we can more easily recast Zedruu to continue drawing cards and gaining life!


Card Draw

Every deck needs card draw, selection, tutoring, or advantage, to help find the pieces it needs to transition between the phases of the game. There are always going to be spells that are better early than late, or better from ahead, or better from behind. Zedruu the Greathearted is unique in that it draws cards by itself, but it’s important to be able to draw cards when Zedruu is not out, in order to continue the plan and to draw into the mana to re-cast Zedruu.

Rhystic Study shows up with a -6% synergy score on Zedruu’s EDHREC page, but only because it's so ubiquitous in so many decks already. This is another popular, powerful spell that is iconic in blue decks, one that provides a steady stream of cards for the caster, and a constant source of frustration for everyone else. Its tax and enchantment status complement other cards in this deck, like Smothering Tithe and Sphere of Safety, making it difficult for opponents to cast spells, draw cards, or attack. The cards synergize well together, but they are not unique to our commander, nor do they work particularly well with her abilities, as we don’t want to donate them. Still, they do allow us to accrue advantage even when our commander isn't in play.

Dictate of Kruphixis an excellent Howling Mine variant. Since it has flash, we can cast it on an opponent’s turn and gain the advantage before other players. Since it's a universal effect, we can also donate it to an opponent while still gaining advantage! In fact, since an opponent controls it, we'll gain an extra life and card each turn! Other Jeskai decks can’t use the card nearly as effectively as this one, making it a super unique pick for this deck.

Aggressive Mining is a little-used bulk rare that, on its face, is intriguing, but not inherently powerful. The activated ability is a lot of fun: sacrifice a land to draw two cards. That seems like a pretty good rate, and there are ways to mitigate that sacrifice, such as Crucible of Worlds. The only problem is the “you can’t play lands” part. Then, you factor in that the card draw ability only works once each turn. This seems like a bad card to control, and it kind of is… which is why it makes the perfect white elephant gift! What better way to shut down that pesky Landfall deck? Since it has an activated ability, it also plays nicely with a subtle little design trick: since Zedruu has an activated ability, she can have Zirda, the Dawnwaker as a companion, and still use cards like this one!


Win Conditions

The last major job that most decks need is a way to actually close out the game. Ramping allows you to play spells out, but can be dead draws late game. Removing threats works for a while, but with three opponents, someone’s going to stick something, and games can either stall out or develop into arms races. Card draw helps, but what are you looking to actually draw? The answer is... win conditions! In a deck where the commander draws cards and gains life, finding ways to seal the game off before becoming public enemy #1 is key to winning!

Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind is an old-school Commander win con. In his own deck, Niv combines with cards like Curiosity to deal infinite damage, since he deals damage when he draws cards, and will draw cards when he deals damage. We can do this until we ping down the whole table, assuming their combined life total is less than the amount of cards in our deck. In this deck, Niv not only provides at least one extra card per turn, but also converts the massive draw power of Zedruu into direct damage or spot removal for creatures and planeswalkers!

Approach of the Second Sun is an easy-mode win con in a deck that has the ability to draw cards at the rate Zedruu can. Casting Approach gains us 7 life, and within another turn, we'll likely draw it again, and then re-cast it to win! This requires 14 total mana across a vanishingly small number of turns, making it easy to pull off in this deck, without even casting any spells in the interim!

Form of the Dragon, our last card of note, is one of my favorite cards of all time. I’ve had success in Modern and, before it, in Extended, with this card and the spell Enduring Ideal (I did mention I was a combo player!). Turning oneself into a Dragon is one of the great delights in Magic, and when Zedruu's locks are in place, we can't be successfully attacks, and we're drawing tons of answers to anything our opponents try to play, this is a funny way to chunk things down to size without actually taking as big of a risk as it first appears. Of course, we can also give it to an opponent, too. They'll deal the 5 damage before their life total is lowered, but why not have a little fun playing with fire? 


Best Time for a Gift? No Time Like the Present!

Let's round it out with a sample Zedruu decklist! We're focusing on doing the jobs a deck needs to function, in a way that capitalizes on the commander’s unique characteristics. With the holidays coming up, I’d like to share a calmer version, which is a little easier to manage than the lists that toss cards around the table like a Vegas Blackjack dealer. (Sidenote: I would have loved to go to the MagicFest in Vegas, and hope everyone there had a wonderful time!) Also, Zedruu is a lightning rod for removal, and may need to be cast multiple times, so hitting land drops is still as vital as ever!

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Hopefully, this guide helps you to evaluate cards and use the data at hand! Results may vary, as playgroups, deck choices, and the luck of the draw can impact how games go.

Which cards overperformed for you? Which cards were overrated? Join me next time as we explore which cards are dead weight, and which cards do WORK!

Teacher, judge, DM, & Twitch Affiliate. Lover of all things Unsummon. Streams EDH, Oathbreaker, D & D, & Pokemon. Even made it to a Pro Tour!